AC/DC in the Studio: The Stories Behind Every Album
US: Apr 2011
Classic rock stations the nation and (it is assumed) the world over have a rather formulaic method of programming. For these stations to play the latest track by Lady Gaga, say, would not only be strange, but frustrating to listeners who have come to rely on them for supplying a certain brand of popular rock music. But even given that, the rigidity to which these stations adhere can be frustrating in itself.
Take AC/DC, for example. A hard rock staple since the band’s inception in the mid-‘70s, AC/DC still enjoys fairly heavy rotation on many radio stations, particularly those with a hard/classic rock format. On a whim one day, I called my own local classic rock station and requested “Who Made Who”, which may not be the band’s most well-known song, but as the title track of the album upon which it appeared, and as a not minor hit upon its release in 1986, it is not exactly the deepest cut a station could play. I thought perhaps it would be a nice change from the standard “Highway to Hell” or “You Shook Me All Night Long”. The DJ told me, “I’ll see what I can do”, and not ten minutes later, the familiar opening riff to “Back in Black” blasted out of my radio.
AC/DC, like other comparably influential acts such as the Rolling Stones or the Ramones, play a very simple, very set-in-its-ways brand of rock ‘n’ roll. This is their charm and their strength. And so when it follows that the culture that most readily embraces this music also prefers to never derivate from that path, one cannot really be surprised. On the other hand, there is also a real depth to the material the band has managed to wrangle out of such a formulaic method of creating music, and thus, it can be particularly frustrating when this depth is barely mentioned or flat-out ignored.
And here is the problem with the book AC/DC in the Studio: The Stories behind Every Album by Jake Brown. With a glance at the title, one may think that by narrowing his focus to one aspect of the band, that perhaps Brown will be able to flesh out this particular sphere, that the reader will get more of a glimpse at the band’s creative process, which may often be glossed over in various media, given the band’s infamous reputation and tremendous on-stage presence. Instead, what we get is a 200-plus page rehash of promotional articles and interviews, the equivalent of those cheapie rock biographies that were such a staple of Troll Books in my elementary school days.
To be fair, the book does somewhat deliver on its promise. The highlight here is some light is shone upon some of the band’s albums that, for whatever reason, have not stuck as well in the popular conscious as others. Even the most casual supporter of AC/DC is sure to own a copy of Highway to Hell or Back in Black, and thus, written material about these albums and their impact is plentiful. However, an album like 1995’s Ballbreaker has largely been forgotten, even though it was produced by none other than Rick Rubin, who is quite possibly the most important record producer of the last 30 years. So an entire chapter of a book dedicated to this one record, as well as other lost gems like Flick of the Switch or Blow Up Your Video, is inarguably something to be encouraged within rock journalism. With the vast fanbase the band has accumulated over its nearly 40-year career, even the most unpopular AC/DC record is bound to be at least one person’s favorite.
Also, a large amount of research was clearly invested in this book. The work of Susan Masino and Paul Stenning, both of whom have written extensive biographies of the band, is heavily cited. What seems like hundreds of articles are also cited, and quite possibly every magazine interview the band has ever conducted throughout their career is used here. While it’s true that magazines such as Creem, Kerrang!, and Guitar Player certainly provide a starting point for deeper research into a band like AC/DC, they are often written at a level intended for easy ingestion. This is not a criticism of the fan press (which, even with their glossy covers and wide distribution, is basically what these magazines represent), but rather it is to forward this notion that a book dedicated to the subject of one band or even, as in this case, one band’s discography, should provide for its readers something more than they can find on the newsstands (including that virtual newsstand known as the internet and its attendant fan sites).
Unhappily, AC/DC in the Studio does not provide this. Each and every paragraph of this book is a basic frame for a quote from any one of the band members, or one of the engineers or producers the band has worked with over the years. And that is it. There is no cohesive narrative voice—in fact, no kind of narrative at all. Just quote after quote, in chronological order according to the album being discussed, often set up for the reader with the exact same template: “...as Malcolm Young told Mojo...”, “...drummer Phil Rudd explained to Musician magazine…”, “...Cliff Williams told Guitar World...”. One might be able to dismiss or, at the very least, be able to overlook this lack of any real story behind any of the albums, if it were not for this predictable, absolutely tedious formula. Reading this book is pretty much like reading 200 pages of pull quotes.
I love “Back in Black” as much as the next fan and can listen to it over and over again. So my request for “Who Made Who” being denied was not that big of a deal. Is it too much to ask, really? The appeal of the music and personalities of a group of musicians like AC/DC should be readily apparent to anybody who has had even minor exposure to the band. But those searching for more than that surface appeal can often turn to books, books which are engagingly written on top of being well-researched. Alas, it’s impossible to attain reader engagement in AC/DC in the Studio. The book is a light diversion, a quick read with some interesting facts. The best thing about the it is that it will likely make you want to put your AC/DC albums on the home stereo and play them really loud.
Just do me a favor and play “Who Made Who” once.